High school is a rough period for a lot of young people. On top of trying to keep up with classes, homework, and all manner of extracurricular activities, there's also the dramatic side of the teenage years. There's the awkwardness of fitting in and there are also various cliques to deal with. It's impossible to get along with everyone and dealing with nasty classmates can make those days a nightmare, especially when certain adults that are supposed to help only make the situation worse.
Plus, there's all that time travel to deal with. That's just the worst.
Alright, maybe that last bit didn't make too much sense. But that's what's going on in Life Is Strange, the new five-part series from developer Dontnod Entertainment, best known for 2013's Remember Me, and publisher Square Enix. This story-based episodic series (starting with episode one, titled Chrysalis) looks to examine some of those nerve-wracking issues of modern high school, while also incorporating more of a supernatural twist. The result, so far, is an interesting, if somewhat predictable, tale that could very well turn into a gripping coming-of-age story.
The story follows Max Caulfield, a young photography student who has recently returned to her home of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. One day, she sees a vision of her town's pending destruction. She finds a massive tornado about to strike and lay waste to everything in its path, with nothing anyone can do to stop it. That's when she wakes up.
Max quickly discovers that she has the ability to turn back time, at least for the short term. While this sounds like the setup for some sort of action or adventure game, it's actually a story-based tale more along the lines of Heavy Rain or Telltale's The Walking Dead. This means the majority of the game is interacting with others, making dialogue selections, and solving puzzles. Max's power, however, gives this formula something of a twist.
While Max is prompted to make dialogue choices throughout her interactions, players are often prompted to rewind time to think their selections over more carefully. SInce Max maintains her position and also carries any future knowledge with her, she can offer a more knowledgeable response. More interestingly, entirely new dialogue choices can potentially open up, leading to a different part of the story.
The time travel mechanic also introduces some keen puzzle mechanics. Since Max maintains her position whenever she manipulates time, object placement becomes an important element. For example, a bird flies towards a bedroom window and slams right into it, but Max can walk towards the window, turn back time, and make sure the window is open so that the bird can safely fly in.
On the surface, this mechanic sounds like a crutch. If you answer wrong, simply go back and answer correctly. However, because Max's abilities only work in the short-term, there are several long-term consequences that can potentially unfold. Saving your own skin in the now doesn't necessarily mean something terrible won't happen later. What I couldn't help but notice was that almost all of Max's options lead to something terrible, making her somewhat of a black cat. It remains to be seen whether things will turn out more positively for her in ensuing episodes, but it's hard to get a sense from the first episode that there's truly a right way to go.
Aside from the time travel mechanic, Life is Strange's strength lies in its developing narrative. While other games of this type have players mold their character into different personality types, there's a great sense in this game that Max is a genuinely good-hearted person that's trying to do the right thing. However, much like in real life, the right thing is never easy, especially when circumstances seemingly line up against you.
There are some cripplingly difficult choices to make throughout the first episode. One example sees Max dealing with the fallout of a classmate brandishing a gun. She gets the choice to tell her principal or keep it to herself. Since the classmate is a rich kid with a powerful family, telling the principal arouses suspicion and risks incurring the kid's wrath, while keeping it to herself will get her in more immediate trouble. This is a case where long-term consequences will come into play and the answer isn't simply turning back the clock.
Regardless of the choices, however, it's interesting to watch Max's relationships unfold. She feels like an outcast, so there are certain people she either tries to fit in with or steers clear of entirely. Some of those relationships even begin to evolve over the course of this single episode. In particular, her fateful reunion with long-time friend Chloe is one of the recurring storylines worth keeping up with. Watching Max run through relics of their old friendship, while hearing about what Chloe endured during their five years apart can get pretty heart-wrenching, especially for anyone that's ever been part of a broken home.
The trouble with the narrative, thus far, is that some of the plot points veer towards the predictable. Whether it's Max's dialogue with one of her closest male friends or observing the connection Chloe has with a missing student, it won't take most players long to see where these storylines are going. In particular, anyone that has played through story games like the aforementioned Heavy Rain and The Fullbright Company's Gone Home, both of which Dontnod has acknowledged as influential to Life is Strange's design, will recognize many of these story elements.
The only other issue I've had with the story, thus far, is the dialogue. This could just be an "old man" speaking, but I had the same questions from this game as I did after watching Juno for the first time: Do teenagers really talk like this? Some of the teenage lingo can go a little overboard and some of it even took me out of the moment. I can only wonder if others will have that same cringing sensation after hearing Chloe use the word "hella" unironically for the fourth or fifth time.
THERE'S A STORM COMING
The oncoming storm appears to be the wild card of Life is Strange's story. For a game that looks to be centered around the story of coping with the difficulties of high school, having it all lead to a storm that destroys everything sounds somewhat out-of-place. Yet the mysteries of the narrative also offer an interesting sense of curiosity. Are the storm and the missing girl connected? Is there more to Max's power than meets the eye? How exactly did she end up with this power anyway?
These are the answers to look out for in the second episode, but this first introductory episode is just that. It's an introduction and one that should appeal mainly to fans of the genre, with all others perhaps better served with trying the free demo first. The "edgy teen drama" tone may not work for everyone, especially since it's prevalent throughout the entire game. It remains to be seen whether the rest of Life is Strange's story can maintain a sense of intrigue, but it won't take too long to find out. The second episode is set to hit in six weeks.